Climbing the Famous “A Dream of White Horses” in Anglesey

Climbing the Famous “A Dream of White Horses” in Anglesey

A Dream of White Horses on the North Stack of Gogarth in Anglesey is considered to be one of the world’s greatest multipitch climbs.  First ascended in 1968 by Edwin Drummond and Dave Pearce this masterpiece weaves across the enormous cliff face and above outrageously exposed hanging slabs.  At times, with nothing under your feet other than the boiling sea and occasional seal, this is a sensational route which is an essential climb for any trad climber.

Access

The closest parking is at Parc Gwledig Morglawdd Caergybi, Holyhead Breakwater Country Park, Holyhead LL65 1YG.

The car park cost £4.00 for 12 hours parking and the machine takes cash and card.  However, when we arrived at 07:30 am, the ticket machine was not working so I employed the trusty sign. I was informed later by a climber that the machine only works after 09:00 am. I cannot confirm whether this is true, but the machine was working by the time we got back from the climb.

The “get out of jail free card” has been deployed many times with great success

To reach the high tide abseil of A Dream of White Horses takes 20 – 30 minutes from the car park.  Walk out the car park and up the hill on the main footpath until a split in the path is reached, grid ref SH 21715 83704.  There is an obvious path down to the lighthouse but instead go straight and down a thin zig zag path.  At the end of this path, we dropped our bags (obvious shelter by rocks on the right) and continued down to the promontory position which enabled us to see the route, grid ref SH 21520 83718.

To reach the high tide edge, instead of continuing down to the promontory position, follow a thin path leftwards.  This is quite precarious and gets progressively steeper until it becomes a scramble down a firm but polished gully. 

At the base of the gully is a well-worn area.  There is an abseil point, but it is very low down on the right near an obvious gully.  It is further than you would expect, towards the edge of the cliff.  We were unable to spot this so used the large block high up and a cam to build a suitable abseil anchor which we retrieved later. 

A Dream of White Horses tops out near the promontory so a short walk back along the cliff edge, then down the gully is required to recover abandoned kit.

The Climb

A Dream of White Horses is traditionally climbed over 4 pitches but if starting at the high tide ledge, you climb up to the traverse line and traverse to the crack of Wen at the start of pitch 3.  Pitch 4 is the world class pitch that climbers will squabble over for the lead.  It is sensational.  So good it is worth doing it many times.

  • Pitch 1, 40 m 4c
  • Pitch 2, 22 m 4c
  • Pitch 3, 37 m 4c
  • Pitch 4, 40 m 4c

We stayed overnight in Holyhead as it is close to Gogarth North Stack and wanted to make sure we were first on the route.

A calm evening in Holyhead

We were up at 07:00 am and arrived in the Breakwater Country Park 30 minutes later.  I fired up the Moka pot to get the morning caffeine fix.

Moka pot on in the back of my full van

The sky was hazy, but the weather was calm.  The car park is well sheltered from the wind and the morning birds chirping away made it a peaceful spot.  This was slightly hampered by losing the battle of paying for parking.  As mentioned above, I got out the trusty sign and we left. 

The walk in starts with a good hike up hill which gets the blood going.  We followed the obvious track until reaching the split where we continued straight and then down a thin zig zag.  At another split, we dropped out bags in a shelter on the right and continued down towards the promontory.  This position enables you to see the full cliff and check the condition of the route. Even though it had been a dry for days, the humidity on the sea cliffs lingered on and the route would have been more aptly named “A Dream of Damp Horses”.    

Gogarth, Wen Zawn

Deciding to wait for the conditions to improve, and since there were no other climbers there was no pressure to rush, we hiked back to the bags and set off to find the abseil.  This turned out to be quite a challenge. From the cliff, you follow a small track, until descending a polished gully that requires care when weighed down with climbing gear. 

There was a formidable block of rock to set up an abseil but no tat, or stake to be seen.  As it turned out, there is a cord and a maillon but it is not obvious.  You must move even further towards the cliff edge before it comes into view.  Having decided the aforementioned abseil did not exist, we built an anchor using the large block and then when descending we spotted the ‘notsoinvisible’ abseil.  Ah well. 

The top of the crack on the upper right is the abseil position for the high tide start.

Before abseiling, we lounged around for a while until suddenly, several parties arrived all at once.  No more time for waiting.  Jay disappeared over the edge while I waited around chatting to the other climbers.  It was this group that told me the car park ticket machine does not work before 09:00 am.  I was remaining hopeful that I would not have a ticket when I got back to my van.  The ab rope went slack which indicated that Jay was off the rope, so I attached myself and descended to the ledge. 

Abseiling a towards the sea is a wonderful experience.  It is a commitment to the route, knowing that the best way out is to climb out.  Once on the ledge I secured myself to the anchor and then we faffed with rope and gear until I was ready to climb. 

Pitch 1. The first pitch climbs above the belay for a few meters, then follows an obvious traverse line to a hanging belay.  I found this pitch quite committing, the rock looks friable and felt hard to read.  In reality the flakes are solid, but it takes a keen eye to spot the edges to use for footholds.  I climbed up, placing good protection until reaching the obvious traverse line.  Even though the rock was damp, the edges were very positive and with careful footwork, I did not feel at risk of slipping. 

I delicately climbed, creeping slowly higher as I traversed to the belay.  By this point I was feeling comfortable on the rock and enjoying the balancy nature of the climb.  The belay is an obvious large spike in a crack, there are a few spikes around, so a quick and safe 3-piece anchor was easy to make. 

The author, on the hanging belay at the end of the first pitch. Photo by @adventures.of.jay

When in the Peak District earlier in the month climbing Elder Crack, I had skinned my ankle in the off width.  I managed to catch this when building the anchor and before long my shoes and the belay and been liberally showered in blood.  Grim.

Jay climbed up to the belay but found the nature of the damp rock more difficult.  He had a couple foot slips which threatened to send him into the void but managed to keep it together. 

Jay seconding the first pitch
From time to time we could see seals pop their heads above the water

After joining me at the belay, we swapped gear and he prepared to climb the second pitch. 

Pitch 2.  The second pitch follows a rising flake for 15 meters to a ledge.  The flakes are followed for another 10 metres before traversing left and descending 5 meters to a belay in a chimney. 

Jay now at the hot end of the rope, climbed smoothly with no risk of slipping feet as he powered up the rising flake.  Back at the belay, I was starting to feel the chill.  The wind was coming in off the sea, barrelling around the curved cliff face and coming straight back at me.  I felt like I was inside a wind turbine, hanging from a spike over the sea.  It did not take long before the teeth started chattering. 

Whilst trying to keep myself warm I made the classic sea cliff mistake of forgetting to check the rope coils.  I had not staggered the coils well and while belaying, the wind had messed with the ropes so by the time Jay reached the belay, I had a knot that would have been more appropriately found on Medusa’s Head than in Gogarth. 

Freezing cold and frustrated, I spent an age trying to resolve my self-inflicted torture.  It started to rain which only added to the feeling of impending doom.  Eventually, I was free from the monster knot and ready to second the pitch, but I had no feeling in my fingers or toes, let alone the rest of me.

I took apart the anchor and climbed carefully up the flake.  The moves were pleasant, the flake is full of jugs but not being able to feel my feet made the process more engaging.  Focusing hard on not falling off and making each move deliberate until I had passed the ledge and faced with the downclimb. 

As a second, the downclimb is a bit more suspect.  Falling off would result in a big whip under the belay.  The groove is full of choss and looks ready to fall apart but it is actually more solid than appearance suggests.  Shuffling down this I stepped across to the chimney and made myself safe on the anchor next to Jay. 

The climbing had not warmed me up and I hung rather moodily shivering at the anchor complaining about the cold and my lack of desire to lead the last pitch.  Jay looked at me and said, “not climbing will not warm you up.”  He was right so we swapped the rack over and I got ready to lead.

Pitch 3.  The final climbs up from the belay before traversing across an overhanging slab.  It then weaves its way through sensational terrain, delicate down climbs and crossing grooves until stepping onto a slab which is further traversed until climbing the exit groove with an aluminium peg at its base. 

The first thing I did when stepping over the belay was kick Jay in the face.  Sorry mate, I was not that unhappy about leading, honest.  Still feeling the chill, I meant to step over the anchor with my right leg but kicked back and caught Jay in the nose.  Ouch…

Nose smarting over, I then climbed onto the first (wet) overhanging slab.  Despite the wetness, the rock felt grippy and the holds were extraordinary.  I creeped across the slab until the holds ran out. 

The sensational traverse over the hanging slabs. Photo by @adventures.of.jay

Aiming for the fin of rock, I delicately downclimbed to the obvious line of jugs before questing on.  After the descent the combination of climbing and adrenaline had warmed me through.  Wow.  The position, the pitch, the moves are all exquisite.  No longer did the frustration of my poor rope management matter, I was fully engaged in this beautiful pitch.  The gap between the protection can be quite large but the hand holds, even when wet, are so good so there was not even the slightest worry. 

I weaved through the grooves until reaching, what I thought, was a cruxy downclimb.  I matched a large hold before reaching around a bulge of rock which was the start of the exit groove.  Pausing again, not for fatigue, but just to marvel at this sensational climb. 

Some kayakers stopped to watch while I was climbing
Jay hiding from the wind in the small chimney. Plenty of extenders and slings required for this pitch

Edwin Drummond and Dave Pearce’s route finding really was a masterpiece.  The route seems so improbably when viewed from far away, but it is all there, bucket jugs hanging over the sea.  A phenomenal experience.  This route has well earnt its title as one of the best multipitch routes.    

I exited the groove and up the loose top to boulders further back.  Using a giant boulder, I made an anchor then self-belayed back to the cliff edge before using the rope to create a belay so I could see Jay climb.  The warmth that had swept through me during the lead was quick replaced by the frigid wind.

Jay was now off the anchor and started climbing.  From far away it is such a ludicrous spectacle, a small blue jacket lost in the vastness of the rock. 

I watched attentively as he moved through the bulging features of the cliff.  Teetering across the hanging slab.  Downclimbing past the fin.  Crossing the grooves until he was below me in the exit groove. 

He was up, we had a brief high five and then scampered back up the loose top out to the boulder where we unroped and ran back to get our extra layers.  It was only now that I realised no one had followed us.  The other groups clearly decided that the poor weather should be avoided and opted to come back another day. 

We had committed to the route, had a few dramas; a bloody ankle and a sore nose, but successfully climbed this sensational route.  Even with the wind and the rain taking away from the pure pleasure of the route, it was still a sensational climb and one that I thoroughly look forward to climbing again. 

But for now, we packed up our gear and hurried back off to the vans for a warm cuppa before deciding what to do next.

I did not get a parking ticket. 

A Dream of White Horses, Edwin Drummond 1986

Palomino in the morning,
as the sun rose higher

they dashed, their manes on fire,
pounding their hooves on the rocks.

And smashed – we were climbing –
sank, broken, foaming . . .

The wind lashed them back,
combing their matted hair,

swollen green sea mares twenty hands high,
surrounded by herds

of nervous blue stallions,
snorting and champing and trampling

us under, given the chance
We stood by – a pitch apart –

watching the rein of our rope,
that led between the last grey overhand,

redden like a vein in the sinking sun.
And breathed again.

Their fire gone,
the black horses were drinking,

and we were thinking of a name . . .
Nothing had been forced – Then the tide

turned, they surged, rearing
– manes smoking white –

running, running
in the night towards us

Sources
North Wales Climbs, Rockfax
Edwin Drummond, A Dream of White Horses, Recollections of a life on the rocks, 1987

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